The recent case of Letitia Chai, a Cornell University senior who stripped down to her underwear during a thesis presentation to protest a professor’s remark about her short shorts, has me thinking about “respectability politics.”
If you’re not aware, “respectability politics” is a bit of social-justice jargon that more or less means “adopting standards of excellence and professionalism are not going to stop racism/sexism/fill-in-the-blank. Therefore, we should be rude and disregard or actively assault these standards.” That, anyway, is the definition you’ll find on the SJW Internet. A more nuanced discussion on the matter can no doubt be had.
A Vox article by black activist Vann Newkirk is a good example. He writes about a lecture in one of his college courses by Julian Bond, a civil rights activist with a bit of a radical streak. Bond lectured on whether African Americans could help end racism by becoming respectable to whites. He was on the fence. Newkirk recalls the lecture:
Maybe we would have to let go of some of the respectability, he [Bond] said. Maybe we had an innate sense of its limits in a society that found a way to dehumanize even our greatest suit-wearing leaders. There’s one line I remember verbatim: ‘A nice suit is a nice suit. Get one,’ he told us. ‘But it won’t stop a bullet, son.’
Of course a nice suit won’t stop a bullet, and of course every professional should have one. Bond evidently understood these are not opposites. He merely observed that respectability was not a silver bullet. If “respectability politics”—the notion that a suit is a silver bullet—is naively misguided, then so is its equal-and-opposite ideology, the belief that professionalism and its attendant rules are in and of themselves a form of oppression or social injustice.
Is Adult Attire Oppressive?
Many people actually believe exactly that, as this post from the extreme but deadly serious site Everyday Feminism attests: “I’m a ‘young professional,’ and professionalism is one of my least favorite social constructs. When we’re told that we need to look or act professionally, we rarely recognize that it’s code for ‘appear, as much as possible, as if you’re something you’re not and never want to or could be.’”
The problem, the author goes on to explain, is that professionalism is a social construct designed to reinforce “white maleness.” Believing that norms of respectability are intrinsically harmful is a harmful mental habit. It can degenerate into allowing frustration with seemingly timeworn and inflexible standards of excellence to become resentment and backlash for their own sake.
This brings us back to Chai, who evidently believes shredding professionalism is the right answer to its possible overreach. What promoted her protest, as noted, was her professor’s opinion that her shorts were not appropriate for a serious academic setting and might be distracting.
Chai explained she was combatting “oppressive beliefs and discrimination,” i.e., applying dress codes and professionalism to women. She even called on other classmates to “strip down” in solidarity. It’s not clear what is more ridiculous: that this happened in a respected institution of higher learning, or the notion that taking off clothes is a form of social justice activism.
All the Kids Are Doing It
This all transpired just a few days ago, and the social media response has largely been to show solidarity and cheer Chai on. One Twitter user wrote, “Death to professionalism & to dress code. No comprise [sic]. Not one inch. I salute Letitia Chai.”
Most of Chai’s classmates expressed agreement that the professor’s comment was uncalled for, though most also disagreed with Chai’s response. One international student, however, took the professor’s side. She reportedly said Chai had “a moral obligation to dress more conservatively.”
It is instructive that an international student disagreed with the take-off-even-more-of-your-clothes approach to a (possibly) censorious dress code. The success of immigrants, who are often apolitical and more focused on their own financial and professional success, suggests that respectability politics works, at least to an extent.
This is certainly my experience in higher education, where my international classmates were generally more serious students, and, to their great advantage, ignorant of the tribalistic identity politics that pervades many American campuses. Not to put too fine a point on it, but while we drank and engaged in social media snark, they studied.
Here’s an example. A Chinese classmate of mine and I were talking about learning English. “You shouldn’t worry about it too much,” I said, “you already speak better English than a lot of Americans do” (I was not exaggerating, but I suppose that says more about the Americans). She didn’t like that. “No, it isn’t good enough, I need to learn it better,” she said. Perhaps she was being too hard on herself. Perhaps she should have asked why English is hegemonic in the professional world. But she didn’t.
The Greatest Loss Is to The Marginalized, As Usual
A couple of months later, the popular British YouTuber TomSka tweeted, “Never apologize for speaking broken English. The fact that you even learnt a second language is badass and more than most of us have done.” TomSka probably had a friend who was made to feel shameful or apologetic for his or her poor English, and it’s perfectly understandable to resent that. However, whose English will be better, more useful, and ultimately more rewarding to master? My classmate’s, or TomSka’s friend’s?
Of course, non-white international students are not generally practicing respectability politics consciously. They are simply going about their lives. Many have left countries in which tribal enmities and old grudges still pervade life and politics. They must be mystified that the richest and most powerful country in the world is busily manufacturing new feuds and enmities.
This is a great loss of this to everyone, and, as with the chipping away of free speech, the greatest loss may be to the marginalized themselves. It is a loss of neutral values, spaces, and premises on which debate, cooperation, and inter-cultural exchange can even be had. There was a time when dressing professionally for work or school was not a political issue, no matter what your race or sex or nationality. But now it is, and it remains to be seen whether that genie can be put back in the bottle.
The end result is a society in which communication between groups becomes fraught with fear, and relentless politicization renders more and more everyday practices into signifiers of left-wing or right-wing sympathies. It won’t end well.
Racism and discrimination are never acceptable, but having the luxury to play the left-wing identity politics game can itself be a manifestation of privilege. Students and immigrants from poorer and less well-off countries, whose grandparents may have lived in abject poverty or war, evidently have one thing to say about identity politics: Ain’t nobody got time for that. We Americans should follow their example.